A Good Mix

Creating tempting desserts that start with cakes from a box

April 26, 2000|By Linda Cicero | Linda Cicero,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Creative cooks have been fiddling around with cake mixes since they first made their appearance in grocery stores more than 50 years ago.

Fanciful names like Better Than Sex, Sock It to Me, Snickerdoodle, Fiddler on the Roof, Tunnel of Fudge and Gooey Butter are a part of our pass-it-on cake-recipe lexicon. These are the recipes we scribble on napkins at potlucks, file in our battered recipe boxes and proudly contribute to fund-raising cookbooks.

"Cake mixes play a huge role in a style of cooking firmly planted on American kitchen linoleum -- speed-scratch," says Anne Byrn, author of the new "The Cake Mix Doctor" (Workman, $14.95). Byrn baked her way through more than 500 cakes to come up with a compilation of 175 classic and original recipes for doctoring plain cake mixes into desserts that taste homemade.

For purists who question why you'd start with a cake mix, Byrn has some good arguments. First, with a cake mix you cut out a lot of the measuring, creaming and sifting involved in baking from scratch. Most of her recipes are made in a single bowl. Second, cake mixes have what she dubs "steel-belted toughness," the result of corporate research and development and test-kitchen alchemy.

That means they can adapt to different ovens, different pan sizes, over-beating and undercooking, and still turn out OK.

And third, the emulsifiers in a cake mix keep liquid and fat from separating, sealing in moisture, and enhanced leaveners ensure cakes will rise as only expert bakers might accomplish from scratch.

Perhaps most importantly, a cake mix encourages you to bake even when you're pushed for time. "And when you have home-baked cake on the kitchen counter, you raise the comfort level of your household," she says.

Byrn, former food editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, lives in the heart of the Cake Belt in Tennessee. The cookbook evolved from a newspaper story she wrote on how to jazz up cake mixes. She asked readers to send her their own favorites, and was inundated with hundreds of letters.

"My history is scratch cooking, so with this book I tried to approach it with the eyes of a purist and see how can I raise this several notches and attract people who are novices and gourmet cooks as well."

She concedes that cake mixes can leave an artificial taste, primarily from the use of vanillin and other flavors not made by Mother Nature. But with creative use of camouflage extras such as fresh fruit and juices, pure vanilla or almond extracts, coffee, liqueurs -- and of course, chocolate -- you can banish the from-the-box taste.

One caveat from the Cake Doctor is that you cannot take a shortcut and use canned frostings on your cake.

"They really are horrible," she says. "Why go to the trouble of making this gorgeous cake and then putting on something that just doesn't taste homemade? I would rather serve a cake plain."

She provides recipes for quick frostings; her favorite is penuche (the recipe accompanies the Better Than Sex Cake here) -- her easy version of the caramel frosting her grandmother used to tediously make by browning sugar in a cast-iron skillet.

More tips from the Cake Doctor:

* Always keep on hand two devil's-food cake mixes, two yellow cake mixes, one spice mix, one lemon mix and one orange mix, and you'll have an almost limitless repertoire of desserts.

* Experiment with different brands -- some yellow mixes have a coconut overtone, one white mix has a cherry taste.

* Don't use a mix with pudding inside if you're using a recipe that calls for instant pudding as an ingredient -- the pudding-inside cakes will turn out heavier and wetter.

* Use regular salted butter to balance the high sugar content of cake mixes and give a more homemade taste. If you must use margarine for health reasons, make sure it is the stick style and has more than 65 percent vegetable oil.

Fresh Key Lime Cheesecake

Serves 20

softened butter or vegetable shortening for pan

1 (18.25-ounce) package plain yellow cake mix

4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, melted

4 large eggs

16 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1 tablespoon grated lime zest, optional

1/2 cup fresh lime juice (6 to 10 Key limes, or 3 to 5 regular)

1 cup sweetened whipped cream or whipped topping

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan with softened butter or vegetable shortening. Set aside.

Measure out 1/2 cup of the cake mix and set aside. Place the remaining cake mix, butter and 1 egg in a large mixing bowl.

Blend with electric mixer on low speed for 2 minutes. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

The batter should come together in a ball. With your fingertips, pat the batter evenly over the bottom and 1 inch up the sides of the prepared pan, smoothing it out with your fingers until the top is smooth. Set aside.

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